Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Martin Luther King Memorial Taking Shape


Its not easy building a monument on the National Mall. And yet despite the intentionally time-consuming, necessarily frictional process, construction of a 4-acre monument to Martin Luther King Jr. is now, finally underway on the Mall's Tidal Basin.

After decades of preparation, and a groundbreaking back in 2006, the achievement may seem at once inevitable (3 ex-Presidents have lent their support, and corporate sponsors read like a Forbes 500 list), yet so long in conception that DC residents could be forgiven for having not noticed. Hidden from Independence Avenue by a nondescript beige wall, what began 3 or 4 decades ago, depending on who you ask, is at last technically under construction, as contractors begin to place 300 concrete pilings - Venice style - into the silty marsh of the Mall. The pilings will ready the site - a river, after all, until the late 19th century - to accept what will effectively be a large landscape project supporting oblong granite memorials to the civil rights leader.

Once completed - possibly by next summer - the park-like memorial will wrap around the northwest corner of the Tidal Basin, opposite and viewable from the Jefferson Memorial.

Visitors will enter from the northwest edge, near Independence Avenue, by way of a new walkway past the World War I Memorial to better connect the King Memorial to the Mall - a necessity for an area that serves as DC's main attractant but fails to provide for those who show up by car. No designated parking will be added.

Visually, visitors will be greeted by one of the monument's principal symbols - the "mountains of despair," a literal embodiment to a reference in King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The twin granite slabs will frame the entry, two 30-foot sentinels 12 feet apart, appearing to have been sliced and parted, bearing inscriptions from the 1963 speech with themes of justice and hope. Again emulating the civil rights struggle, despair will lead to a path beyond, and having passed through it emerges the view of a single stone, the "stone of hope," appearing as if cleaved from - but beyond - the struggle. Harry Johnson, President and CEO of the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation, takes up the vision of the entrance: "It will look like a mountain that's been split in two. Outside is rough, simulating the roughness of the civil rights movement. You still have not seen Dr. King until you get closer to the Jefferson. It will appear as though the stone of hope will have been cut from the mountain of despair. [King] will be carved on that stone." In fact the granite, quarried in China, is too big to ship in tact, and will be cut into sections and reassembled on site. Lei Yixin, a Chinese sculptor, designed the statue.

Having crossed the memorial to the 28-foot sculpture of King carved into the granite, who stares back at the entrance, arms folded, the visitor will be surrounded by 700 feet of arcing inscription wall that peaks at the entrance at 12 feet in height, decrescendoing down to two feet at the ends, which bow toward the Tidal Basin. Selected quotes will be etched into the surface, which in its first design was intended to flow with water during the summer months, a feature removed when the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) determined it would interfere with visitors' ability to read the quotes.

Set just behind the arcing wall are 24 large, raised semicircular niches, each designed to "commemorate the contribution of the many individuals that gave their lives in different ways to the civil rights movement." Each will allow a private, reflective space dedicated to individuals that died in the civil rights struggle; some will be left blank "in deference to the unfinished nature of the movement."

Hundreds of trees will be "randomly massed" throughout the exhibit, with evergreen Magnolias along the perimeter, Oaks tracing the arc of the stone exhibit, and Cherry trees weaving into the Cherries that now dominate the circumference of the basin. According to Johnson, the Foundation, which has been responsible for the design and construction of the memorial, will add another 200 cherry trees along the tidal basin. Despite the addition to the canopy Johnson says it "will be very visible from the Jefferson Memorial, you will be able to see Dr. King and the memorial." None of the current Cherries will be removed.

The project to build the memorial has been a separate struggle worthy of its own narrative. The official website dates its inception at 1984 (Wikipedia brings it back to 1968), when Alpha Phi Alpha, a fraternity to which King belonged, first proposed a memorial on the National Mall. After much lobbying and rallying, President Clinton signed legislation authorizing the memorial in 1996. The Foundation was formally organized in 1998, and fundraising began in earnest. Unprecedented corporate support (General Motors eventually gave $10m, Tommy Hilfiger gave $5m, and thousands of other corporations have made contributions), gave the tribute momentum, and the development process its acme. In 1998 the National Capitol Planning Commission (NCPC) approved a site at Constitution Gardens.

But in 1999, the CFA, which has authority to approve every element of any memorial, voted against the eastern end of Constitution Gardens as a site, contradicting NCPC's approval, and later that year the two commissions approved the Foundation's request to move the site to the Tidal Basin. In 2000, the Foundation reviewed more than 900 submissions for the design of the memorial, and later that year selected ROMA, a San Francisco-based design firm for its concept of the memorial park. In 2004, Devrouax and Purnell, a DC-based architecture firm, was picked to carry out the task. Devrouax had worked for the city on almost every high-visibility project - projects like Nationals Stadium, Ronald Reagan Airport, the new Convention Center, and the African American Civil War Memorial. According to Marshall Purnell, a principal at Devrouax, he suggested that his firm and ROMA for a joint venture to keep ROMA actively in the process of implementing its design.

While work got underway, the relationship between the Foundation and the Devrouax did not survive the project . "We continued to submit designs, but at some point we fell out of favor with the Foundation" said Purnell. "We were pretty deep into the process by that point, about 65-70% finished with the construction designs and documents." No one involved wants to discuss why the Foundation chose to remove them, and Purnell will not cast aspersions, saying only that "it got sort of ugly. The contract was terminated."

Up until that point the memorial's construction seemed imminent. Congress had just donated $10,000,000 in matching funds, and a groundbreaking had been scheduled for 2006, but other problems beset the project. Fundraising efforts were complicated by King's family, which demanded royalties from money raised using King's name and image in marketing for the memorial. Some supporters protested that a black sculptor had not been chosen, and others decried the choice of Chinese granite, noting that the use of Chinese workers, who are poorly paid and treated, was not respectful of their own civil rights struggle.

With funding lagging, a new design team did not begin until the summer of 2007, when the Foundation selected McKissack and McKissack, Turner Construction, Beltsville-based Gilford Corporation, and Tompkins Builders (now owned by Turner). According to Lisa Anders, Senior Project Manager at McKissack, the engineering firm was chosen because they have "done work on the Mall, and worked on Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, and we are a minority CM and architecture group, so we bring that to the project."

In 2008 the Commission of Fine Arts asked for a reduction in the size of King's statue and the stone of hope, stating that "the statue design is difficult to evaluate because such colossal human sculptures are rarely created in modern times...the recent imagery of such sculptures includes television broadcasts of these statues being pulled down in other countries, a comparison that would be harmful to the success of this memorial." Commissioners commented that only statues meant to be viewed from a distance were now built so big (both Lincoln and Jefferson nearby likenesses are smaller), and created the suggestion "of a colossal statue rather than a depiction of an actual man." The Commission also disagreed with the heavy use of bollards, and the resulting shift in perimeter security to a more natural barrier slowed the project by up to a year.

Despite the complications, work now appears to be in its last phase. With $107m of the projected $120m project already raised, the National Park Service issued construction permits last October, and on December 28th of 2009 initial site prep began on the site, which should wrap up in a little more than a year. Says Purnell of the original design-build team "I would just like to see the Memorial built." It now seems certain he will get his wish.

Washington DC real estate development news

15 comments:

skinny said...

Wow. Where have I seen this before? Oh, yes, 1950s Soviet war monuments.

Why are these boring plaza-type fortresses, er, monuments, recessed into the ground? Shouldn't King be standing on his mountaintop, not in a trench?

This is quite the clunky bunker (er, monument?) to such an eloquent and spiritual leader and thinker. MLK deserves something more inspired.

Frisbee player said...

Probably not as bad as megalomaniac FDR's monstrosity, but yet more parkland / softball field / greenspace given up. Soon the mall will look like a big chess set.

Que said...

@ Frisbee

You play softball next to open body of water ?

When was this ever a park; half of the area around the King memorial was not there and was part of the beach.

There is plenty of space there tell the government to stop being scared and putting up barriers everywhere

Frisbee said...

This takes up what was once a green field, and yes, I had played frisbee there, and softball on what is now the land-wasting FDR monument.

ksu499 said...

Interesting. The focal point of the MLK memorial being carved from stone from Red China by a sculptor from Red China, a place that would not recognize civil rights if it slapped them in the face. And the end product looks more like Mao than Martin Luther King.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see it's moving forward. The critics can waste even more energy by railing against the other monuments that already exist and argue they be razed to make space for frisbees and dog parks — they are masochists who like beating their heads against the Washington Monument. They would have been completely ignored by the builders of the other monuments as they should be now.

MRM

Dennis Melby said...

It'll be good friends. I wish the world was a more perfect place, I wish the monument wasn't from communist china and the King family didn't request royalties on the fundraising, but the world takes work to make it better . . . and that's what Dr. King did, right here in D.C.

It's poetic that the monument is being built on what was once a segregated swimming hole, don't you think?

Finally, every REALTOR donated a dollar for this project, we gave $1,000,000 to its completion. I'm proud of the real estate community for that.

Agent said...

How does patronizing China make the world a better place? Working toward that goal would be making different choices. Not saying I hate the monument, though what the hell does MLK have to do with real estate? I didn't know my association fees were going toward that, I fail to see the connection.

Anonymous said...

It does look like a communist monument. Why is that? Was MLK a communist? Probably not so what gives? Maybe it's a good thing he's holed up in stone so he can't see and hear how little progress we've all made in embracing our brothers and sisters.

Anonymous said...

i agree the memorial is uninspired, but the red china (red china?...what is this, the 1950's?- funny) argument is laughable...and a tad hypocritical.

why is the stone coming from 'red' china such an issue, and yet 90% of the stuff we buy and use coming from china is not an issue? if you are going to single out this stone as an argument for anti-china goods, then you damn well better not have a closet full of clothes made in china.

and really, the MLK committee made a huge cost savings decision. granite from china is a fraction of the price from other locations because they have a sh*t ton of it. if you go there, and SE asia for that matter, granite is everywhere- and the quality of the granite from there is hard to beat.

im not saying i'm on board with all of this, but i think there's a time and place to pick a battle and spend the energy to argue a point. in my opinion, this is NOT the time and place.

Anonymous said...

let's complain about the real monstrosity- the WWII memorial. not only did the placement of it ruin that perfectly pure vista from the lincoln, but its fascist-style architecture makes me want to vomit...and then get pissed.

Mr. 14th & You on May 17, 2010, 5:21:00 PM said...

LOL, the complaining and gnashing of teeth in the comments here is really something to behold.

"Oh yeah, you think this is bad? Well, what about..."

People hated the Lincoln Memorial when it was built, too.

Rocky said...

Anon at 4:52:

What support do you have for anything you said? We have plenty of granite here in the U.S. There's that small chunk known as the Rockies that you may have overlooked, and others as well. That doesn't have to be shipped across the ocean (so it would be more environmentally responsible). The issue is not a red-herring. So to speak.

Anonymous said...

@ rocky:

i'm aware of our large quarries, esp. in barre, vermont, which supplies us with our lovely granite curbs. however, the fact remains that china (and india) have huge amounts of granite deposits. combine that with low labor costs, and a high rate of production and you get the lowest cost granite anywhere right now (shipping included).

calculating the carbon footprint of something is far more complicated (and usually inaccurate) than only the shipment of it. who knows, the methods of extracting the granite, administrative business, and driving it from the rockies to the site might produce a larger carbon footprint than the process of extracting and getting chinese granite onsite.

i'm guessing the chinese sculptor used his local granite supplier in china (because he's chinese) and did the work in china. i can't argue with that. he would then ship the finished product to the site. together that may yield a lesser carbon footprint, and in the end be cheaper for the client. and of course, the client liked his work, which is why they supposedly chose him in the first place.

i'm far more worried that the design of the whole space is not quite right, and not up to the caliber of civic public space that we enjoy here.

Charlotte Wilkerson said...

Just took a cursory look at the Dr. King, Jr. memoria; and, so far I lovvvvvve the memorial! It represents the epitome of what Jesus' said God's children would be: solid as rock, shall not be moved, just like a tree planted by the water. It is absolutely beautiful, and truly martyr our beloved Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. God knows what he is doing, Alleluia!

 

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